On She Goes

Palate to Palette: Food, Art, and Travel in Japan with Justine Wong

An artist’s journey to 100 romantic food watercolors.

Angela Hsu
Angela Hsu
August 1, 2017
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Like so many other office workers, Justine Wong was tired of the daily grind. Despite having a stable design job—a boon for any recent art school grad—she felt ready for a change of pace. So Justine fused her restlessness with her desire to travel and make art, and started a Kickstarter campaign, “21 Days in Japan,” a crowd-funded adventure that would take her across Japan’s cities as she documented her daily food experiences. Ultimately, 135 backers donated $6,488 in Canadian dollars to sponsor her meals while traveling, starting from her arrival in Osaka, and continuing across Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Nagoya, and Hakone, up to her final days in Tokyo and Yokohama. In return, those who supported Justine’s journey received a print from the project’s 100 watercolor illustrations of sponsored foods—romantic studies of snacks, scenes, and meals that induce pangs of nostalgia in all who have ever eaten Japanese food.

This project was followed by an extended stay in Japan, where she shifted toward more abstract works influenced by her trips to the seaside around Kamakura and Izu. As she drew from the shapes and hues of collected pebbles and shells, she established a set of pieces that would culminate in the 2016 solo exhibition “No Hard Feelings” at Kaisu Hostel in Tokyo.

From Japan, I connected over Skype with Justine in her hometown Toronto for this interview. Against the glow of the computer screen she looked exactly like the artist I knew from Instagram: short, neat bangs, cat eyeliner, black shirt. As she paused to take in my questions on art and travel, I imagined her mind tracing its memories, trying to convey the scenes and colors from her Japan. Listening to Justine describe her escapades with strangers and wanderings across rural towns, it was easy to forget that this life on the go was also a kind of work—to see, to remember, and to transmute into art.

Justine Wong’s studio.
photo by Justine Wong

How did you decide to crowd-fund your first trip to Japan?

I guess it goes a step back, when I had been working at an editorial magazine for almost two years as a junior designer. I was reaching my limit of working at an office. It was a good time to just travel somewhere by myself. I chose Japan, even though I actually had no plans for what to do. But being an illustrator, I think you’re just naturally used to always working, and so I thought it might be an opportunity to create a space where I could explore [through] my artwork while I was traveling.

My boyfriend at the time was designing board games [funded through Kickstarter], which I helped with. Naturally, [Kickstarter] became an option for funding my own project. At the time, I wasn’t even that interested in food; it was more me thinking of how I could immerse myself in a culture in any way. And so we just went down the route of food, which everyone can connect on.

Was it a kind of pressure, knowing that people had put money into supporting your travels?

Yes (laughs). At the time, it felt like I was just asking someone to be a part of my story. And so in that sense it didn’t feel like a business transaction. It felt almost like a grandparent giving you allowance money, which you used to go find something interesting and bring back to show them. I think the pressure didn’t really come until after I finished traveling, when I had to finish 100 paintings and get them printed and shipped out to the right people.

Justine Wong

When you arrived in Japan, how did you navigate a completely new place?

Prior to that, I had studied the sounds of the alphabet. So even if I didn’t know something, I could at least sound it out to someone. But I also did small things—like when I was in Kyoto, I would go to the same café every morning. Even though most people would want to go to a different place every time, for me as a solo traveler, there was a desire to go somewhere where someone might recognize you every morning. By doing that, I actually met other travelers who also did the same thing, and then we would have a conversation and it would feel a little bit more like home. Or the baristas might recognize me and ask, “Why are you here again today?”

For choosing restaurants, I would just follow older people, because I trust their tastes. I feel like if they go there all the time, at that age they would go to their favorite places. They wouldn’t necessarily go somewhere new, and so I would find myself following an old lady into a random place, even though I had no idea what they sold. Sometimes it paid off, and sometimes you got a really interesting experience.

After completing the “21 Days in Japan” project, when you were back in Toronto, you decided to move again to Tokyo for a longer period of time. What was different the second time around?

It took me three months to find an apartment where the fees of the guarantor weren’t so high, because you usually have to pay two to three months of rent [up front]. And then there was just tackling the loneliness of being alone in a city. When you actually live somewhere versus when you travel, you have work to do and you still have to go through the motions of living.

And then there’s how claustrophobic Tokyo can actually feel when you end up living there. At the end of six months, I started to find ways to balance. It was quite saturated [with noise and people], being in Tokyo all the time.

Works in progress.
photo by Justine Wong

Did you start traveling more, going to other prefectures?

I think I started doing that mostly because Toronto doesn’t have any mountains and oceans; it just has a lake. While in Japan, I would always book Airbnbs in the middle of nowhere, even if they were really hard to get to. The times I did that I was greeted with kindness from people who would take me in, drive me everywhere, introduce me to their friends, and be super excited to let me experience their little town—those are interactions you don’t exactly get in Tokyo. Because people are so busy [in Tokyo]. I found it the most valuable, actually, to travel out to the countryside.

I really liked to go to Izu [Shizuoka]. You’re taking the train down the coast, along the ocean for about three hours. Then you have to take a bus that goes across the mountains into a little fishing town called Matsuzaki. It’s less beach-like and more rocky, but they have amazing sunsets there. The whole coast just turns gold, and then it fades to a purple and then blue. There’s barely anyone on the streets; it’s just the ocean and really good seafood.

Your artwork used to be so focused on food, whereas now you seem to be going in a more abstract direction. Does this have something to do with these travels? 

In the beginning my work was primarily an observational connection to the culture and environment of Japan. But the new pieces are based entirely on my personal feelings. There are so many times that I would go to the seaside just to balance out my life. So a lot of the pieces are about ways of balancing all these different parts of my life, to create a structure that stands on its own. In many ways, I feel like I’ve matured to a place now that is more of my work, rather than just repainting something beautiful that already exists.